Civil society ICT policy portals: How the ten websites in ten different countries were developed simultaneously
MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY, 20 July 2004
The 2003 United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society was a watershed in public participation in ICT policy as ICT policy made a shift from the world of obscure jargon and elites to a new context. ICT policy became social policy not technical policy. Through WSIS new voices – people living with disabilities, the education and research sectors, the free software movement, children’s rights advocates, campaigners for the global information commons and more- were heard in the ICT policy arena for the first time.
"APC had campaigned actively regionally and globally during the first phase of the World Summit and we felt this change was a huge break-through and wanted to see how we could take it forward at national level. With some financial support provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) we were able to provide seed funding for a small number of national ICT policy sites set up by our members – all of whom are ‘social techies’ in their own right," said APC executive director, Anriette Esterhuysen.
Bringing the members on board
APC chose to have a competitive tendering process for the seed funding that the CIDA support made available for these sites. This contributes to the sustainability of the sites as it ensured that only organizations with active interest participate. There was overwhelming interest from APC members in developing national WSIS portals. Twelve members participated in the activity with five being funded by CIDA. They are from Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, the UK and Uruguay.
"The positive response shows that civil society organisations at national level are increasingly taking active responsibility for trying to influence the policy and regulatory environments that impact on their use of ICTs," said Anriette.
Planning the sites
Anna Feldman of APC who was responsible for the design of the skeleton portal takes over the telling of the set-up. The structural design of the sites had two competing needs to meet: It had to be generic enough to accommodate the content from any one of the 10 different member organisations – all operating in very different policy environments. It also had to be oriented around the specific needs of sites that could process Internet Rights content. In this way there would be enough common ground to make a central ‘Portal’ space that each site could coherently contribute content to. Equally each site would be able to retain its own identity and exist as a ‘local’ site for its region.
Now these content considerations were then coupled with the technical requirement to design a site that could develop, grow, and evolve just by being fed with content. Without the resources to have a web developer behind each site, the members needed sites that could be fully-managed by content people.
APC ActionApps was an obvious choice for the Content Management System. The majority of members either had it installed or were able to share the installation of a sister network. It’s open source, designed to be used for portal projects, and has the needs of ‘social movement’ content at the heart of its design.
The initial draft contents list for the site came together at a meeting in Johannesburg in March 2004, and was summarised in an email (see graphic) that became the starting point for the shape the sites took. It broke down into a range of different subject headings and document types.
On the one hand we had themed headings like: National legislation, civil society involvement in WSIS in your country, gender and ICTs, how to get involved
And on the other we had format headings like: News, calendar, links to organisations, newsletter.
And so we opted for a simple approach to structuring the CMS. We created 5 different information section, called ‘slices’ in ActionApps jargon, largely based on formats of documents, rather than subjects.
v A Newsletter slice for grouping articles into a bulletin
v A Calendar slice for adding events to
v A links slice for storing links to organisations and other resources
v A WSIS slice for WSIS specific content
v A Documents slice for handling the vast majority of content – anything in fact that had a title and substantial content.
We included a categorising facility that allowed content authors to assign a subject heading to their documents. They could also add to those subject headings as new ones became relevant.
And in this way, content from the 5 slices could be driven around a site with a combination of themes and formats.
So a document about new legislation on data retention would get added to the Documents slice – categorised as National Legislation, and News. It could then be driven to both of these sections of the site.
Developing the sites
Getting the sites off the ground was a three-stage process:
1. Creating a generic page design that the members could customise with their own look and feel.
2. Setting up the 5 generic slices
3. Propagating those slices across the members’ servers so that each member had its own set of 5
And woven throughout these fairly distinct stages of development, was the need for continual referral and documentation as the success of the project depended on as much clarity and understanding as possible amongst the developers and implementers. The project was conducted in a completely virtual working space as none of the people involved were in the same offices. Very few were in the same country. We relied heavily on instant messaging, voice over internet and email, crossing continents, time zones, operating systems and servers.
The final page design had a fairly naked feel to it – a colourless grid with spaces for the crucial page elements – a menu, a header, a footer, a highlight box and an operational tool bar. It’s formatting was completely controlled by a CSS style sheet – which could be used by members to transform the look and feel of just about everything on the page except the spatial layout.
The slices felt equally hollow, as they lay empty of content – just a few sample documents used for testing. They needed to be up and running under the members’ control in order to see them take some meaningful shape.
Sharing the slices
In project planning terms, getting the slices out to the members, was High Risk. ActionApps is a fairly sophisticated content management system and one of its most unique features is its ability to share content but it has its weak points.
Exporting slices is still not seamless (it’s part of the ActionApps suite that will be developed in the future by the free software/open source community) and the APC ActionApps developers in the APC community warned the portal project against it from the outset. The decision not to heed that advice came from an intrepid (some may call it reckless!) spirit that runs through this project: Due in part to the excitement that surrounded the idea of the project; the belief in its value and application; and a sense that that should be enough to carry us over the obstacles. But there was also a feeling that unless we took on this so-called insurmountable, we’d never find our way around it.
And so we went ahead with the plan to export slices to servers around the world. As predicted, the export was very imperfect. The basic field structure travelled in tact – but groups of categories were lost, the configurations that controlled the formatting of content also never made it to the destination installations.
Faced with about eight sets of 5 slices, none of which had enough functionality to be usable, we began the slow and fiddly clean-up process. This involved writing instructions for members on how to reconfigure everything to make it work and remotely, also accessing other installations to help out. For those that couldn’t be helped in this way, we resorted to duplicating slices on the original installation at an APC member’s server in the UK and on another member’s server in Colombia, where a dedicated installation was set up and ready for use by Spanish members. Within 2 weeks we had about 8 sites working and growing with new content. The sites began to diverge in design terms – as new colour schemes and logos were incorporated by the members as they made the sites their own. We also saw new languages spreading across the pages, as the multi-lingual element became real. But of course the most exciting part was to see the content accumulating, to see the site sections developing. The sites were working.
Creating a central web space to pool the content on
With the members largely able to manage their sites themselves, the project workers turned their attention to configuring a central portal space where content from the members’ sites could be pooled. The APC’s recently revamped “ICT Policy and Internet Rights” site (http://rights.apc.org) was the obvious location. But just as any house needs adjustment to accommodate new family members, so too did we have to reassess the living space offered by the APC site. The APC site had clear navigational pathways to its content, and we needed to find ways of bringing in this pooled content from members – which was related and relevant, but nevertheless different. Our task was to make sure that the content remained clearly sign-posted – documents on the same theme need to be grouped together – but at the same time to ensure that the pooled content had it’s own identifiable spaces and didn’t get confused with the APC content. The menu which led the site’s navigation was discussed and reconfigured, discussed again, and reconfigured again. It is a process that continues even now – although at this stage we seem to have rounded on a particularly useable structure. The pooled content itself is still largely organised according to the information architecture of the original generic site.
Getting the content pooling working
Whilst the content workers resolved the navigation of the portal, the technicalities of pooling the content were being handled by Honza Malik in Prague. He is one of APC ActionApps’ key developers and became instrumental in the technical success of the project. He created a feeding system that automatically took content items from databases installed on servers around the world, and copied them to the APC’s installation in North America. Not only did the content – we can also call them database records – feed into the remote server installation, the categories successfully mapped onto one another, so that items could be driven out onto the APC site using the common publishing rules that had been applied to content from all members’ sites. This task was made all the more complex by the inclusion of a member site in Bulgaria that had developed its own set up that didn’t conform to the generic template that most members used. And also the Australian member site that wasn’t using the same content management system at all – but relied on an RSS feed to take its content through to the APC’s installation.
The resulting pages of pooled content on the APC site are a heroic vindication of the work that went into the project – showing how diversity of content, style, system, and language are things to celebrate – that they can and do enrich our work. With the tireless support and contributions of a talented team of technicians and content developers we now have:
Internet Rights News, policy documents, regional resources, WSIS process updates, being fed from local sources in Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, the DR Congo, Italy, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Spain, South Africa, and the UK, to a global space – around the clock, throughout the year.
And the Work Goes on….
So now we are looking ahead at how to harness the momentum and take the project further. Watch the APC site for more details.
PHOTO: Portion of email outlining basic elements required in the sample portal developed by APC